NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Cooler temperatures and deep, talented fields will await the Florida State cross country teams when they toe the Burke Golf Course starting line Friday afternoon at the 61st Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational. Five nationally ranked teams, including three of the top five, will be among the 23 women’s teams in the field facing second-year coach Kelly Phillips’ squad. The 5000-meter race, set for 2 p.m., will provide the Seminole ladies with their first real test of the season following a promising third-place finish at the Adidas XC Challenge two weeks ago.
“I’m hoping to see us knock some people off that are ranked,” Phillips said. “This is a good opportunity to show some people that we’re better than we’re ranked.”
Ranked sixth in the South Region, the Seminoles will have an opportunity to turn plenty of heads. Two-time defending South Region champion Vanderbilt, which sits at No. 24 in the USTFCCCA national poll and No. 1 in the South, is in the field along with Nos. 3-4 Alabama and Mississippi. The Noles will also get a close-up of five other ACC teams, including No. 5 NC State, No. 16 Notre Dame, as well as Boston College, Clemson and North Carolina.
“Right now we’re not where we’re going to be in November, but I feel like we’re in a pretty good place fitness-wise,” Phillips said. “It’s exciting to go against Vanderbilt and Alabama; schools that are in our region that we haven’t had the opportunity to race against, just to kind of see where we are head-to-head against them.”
FSU redshirt junior Bridget Blake was injured the last time the Seminoles competed at Notre Dame and won the 2013 team title, and like her eight other teammates, will be tackling the fast course for the first time.
“There’s definitely a lot of competition,” Blake said. “I’m excited to see what we can do as a team, because this is kind of like the first real test. We’re a real young team and pretty new as a group; this is the first time on this course.”
Blake was one of four Noles who debuted two weeks ago at the NC State-hosted Adidas XC Challenge.
“I feel like NC State, for myself and a few others, was kind of a rust-buster; just getting back into the feel of racing,” Blake added. “I think we raced well…This will be the first time this season where we can really put it all out there and get a better estimate of where we are.”
“Bridget did a really nice job at NC State,” Phillips said. “She is somebody that gets better every weekend. She gets race-sharp with more races. I think she’ll have a big jump this weekend.”
Sophomore Carmela Cardama Baez, with a win and a runner-up finish this season, is expected to lead the Noles and test herself against some of the nation’s best, including Providence’s Sarah Collins and Notre Dame’s Anna Rohrer.
Phillips originally thought a top-10 finish for her squad would be a worthy achievement for the early-season challenge.
“Now I’m thinking we need to be top five,” she said.
The Florida State men will have a chance to show they are worthy of their share of No. 30 in this week’s national rankings when they tackle a loaded field in the five-mile race, set for 2:45 p.m. Six other nationally-ranked teams – Eastern Kentucky (No. 9), UTEP (No. 18), Washington State (No. 24) and Texas (tNo. 30) – are expected to be among the top contenders.
So are two teams the Noles are more familiar with: top ranked South Region rival Mississippi (No. 20, nationally) and ACC foe NC State (No. 23).
“It’s nice that we’re facing a lot of ranked teams to see where we are,” said senior co-captain Grant Nykaza, who is from nearby Beecher, Ill. “If we can run well against these teams while we’re in the training phase we are now, we only have big things to look forward to at the end of the year.”
Men’s coach Bob Braman never loses sight on the annual long-range goal – a trip to the NCAA Championships – and believes competing at Notre Dame and Wisconsin are important steps in that preparation.
“You get a real big-meet practice for what’s going to happen at Wisconsin in two weeks and a national meet,” Braman said. “It’s a good exercise to get beat up, pounded around…and running in a crowd. If you can’t do that you’re not going to do well at the national meet, because you will be in a crowd the entire race.”
Braman likes the idea of his team finally getting a taste of some national recognition heading into the first of four races which make up the meat of the schedule.
“I think it’s a great thing, because we get some sort of credit for the team we appear to be, albeit way lower than I think who we are,” Braman said. “It’s a good thing we’re getting credit, and that we think we’re quite under-ranked. It gives you that drive, ‘Hey guys, if you don’t like what you see on that paper [ranking], here’s some teams in front of you on that paper. Let’s see how it goes.’”
The Seminoles certainly appear to have the firepower near the top of the lineup to move up with a strong performance. Harry Mulenga, a two-time ACC Performer of the Week this season, could chase the individual title with teammates Michael Callegari, Steven Cross and Ibrahim Ahmed all capable of making news near the front of the 25-team field.
“If you’re in the top 20 here you’re not eliminated from the top 50 at nationals,” Braman said. “I think we’ve got a pretty good team…This is a great gut-check for your pack, and for our pack, it goes a lot further back.”
Braman believes his team will benefit from the change in climate and the competition, which is one reason he brought the Noles back to Notre Dame after skipping last season’s meet for the first time in his 17 years at the helm.
“We’ve done well here,” he said. “We come out of the heat and get that nice break in the weather. We always feel bouncy with that break in the heat. We’ve been grinding for about six weeks and we’re finally in a real race atmosphere and usually we respond pretty well to that.”
You can keep up with the Noles throughout the competition via Twitter @FSUXC on Friday.